Despite a rough start and some uneven experiences over five classes, the results of 66 evaluations from co-parents who completed our Parents Together for Children (PTC) program in Pasadena between September 2014 and June 2015 were encouraging. 70% of the parents (46 of 66) endorsed they strongly agreed (31 = 47%) or somewhat agreed (15 = 23%) that their relationships with their co-parents would go more smoothly as a result of what they learned in their class. 12 parents (18%) endorsed they neither agreed or disagreed; 2 parents (3%) somewhat disagreed; and 6 parents (9%) strongly disagreed. However, while the number of parents, 12 to 15, in each class was similar, their levels of optimism after they finished classes varied considerably. At the high end, 13 of 14 parents (92%) from one class (71% strongly agreed and 21% somewhat agreed) anticipated their relationships would go more smoothly. At the low end, in another class of 14 parents, 7 parents (50%) anticipated better futures (29% strongly agreed and 21% somewhat agreed).
Our first class in September 2014 had a particularly ominous start. It included 12 parents, 5 sets of child-related, heterosexual co-parents, and a non-related mother and father. Several of the related co‐parents, as is often the case, strongly resisted being in the same class. One father filed a restraining order against his co-parent the week before the class started. Another father contacted DCFS a couple days before the start of class complaining that their daughter was exposed to domestic violence in her mother’s home, and a DCFS CSW showed up at the end of the first class to interview them (the referral was eventually determined to be unfounded). Per a recent court order, the mother of a third couple was only allowed visitation with their children due to Family Court findings of alienating behavior and non-compliance with orders (I had opportunity to read some of the Family Court transcript and it appeared that one of this mother’s offenses was that she complied with a DCFS caseworker’s recommendations that conflicted with Family Court orders). Though the Family Court ordered both of these parents to take the class together and work earnestly to improve their co-parenting, initially, the monitor who supervised mother’s visitations, supported by father’s counsel, would not allow the mother to complete homework assignments with their children that were specifically intended to help their children feel less engaged in or impacted by their parents’ conflict. Finally, the children of a 4th couple were estranged/alienated from their father and though they complied with the visitation orders they did not speak to or interact with him or his family when they stayed with him.
Like many co-parents ordered to classes, this group showed up looking like prisoners of war. Their attorneys had discouraged them from talking to the other parent, and/or their judge ordered them to only communicate by Our Family Wizard. Some came to class informed by their mental health professional that their co-parent was personality disordered, narcissistic at least, borderline or psychopathic at worst, and that it was futile at best or even dangerous to communicate directly with each other. Their resistances to engaging each other constructively was often inadvertently intensified by the professional counsel or court orders they received. However, despite their ominous start:
- 11/12 (92%) parents indicated all of the discussions, videos, class exercises and homework were helpful, mostly very helpful
- Almost all parents indicated that hearing other parents’ conflicts and experiences, discussing the impact of their conflicts on their children, practicing effective language, critiquing their e-mail communications with each other, and practicing awareness and rational control of their negative emotions were helpful, mostly very helpful
- More important and more modestly, 7/12 parents (58%) endorsed that things might go more smoothly with their co-parent as a result of what they learned in class
- It was also encouraging that two of the four couples that started ominously also anticipated a smoother future with each other (however, the other two did not).
Parent evaluations from this class and the year are not atypical, and are consistent with most client satisfaction surveys and more rigorous outcome studies that have supported the positive impact of divorce and co-parent education programs. A recent meta-analytic study of 19 court-affiliated divorcing parent programs that included treatment and no-treatment control groups and independent outcome measures of subsequent co-parent behaviors or child welfare found an overall, positive and moderate size effect indicating that “those who participated were about 50% better off in terms of program outcomes compared to those who did not participate, similar to positive outcomes for general psycho-educational parenting programs and substance abuse prevention programs” (Fackrell, T. A., et al., 2011).
While client satisfaction surveys do not measure actual outcomes and cannot answer the ultimate questions, i.e. did a specific co‐parenting class actually result in less conflict or healthier co-parenting between the participating parents, they can provide useful information regarding what type of focus co-parents’ endorse as helpful, and insight about what contributes to an effective working or therapeutic alliance with custody litigating parents, which is often more challenging than with non-litigating clinical family populations. Over the year, our PTC parents endorsed that the most helpful structured discussions they engaged in were:
- the impact of parental conflict on their children
- encouraging their children to love both parents
- advantages of brief, informative, polite and solution-focused co-parent communication
- importance of keeping perspective and control of their negative emotions
Practicing and critiquing their e-mails were endorsed as the most helpful homework assignments and class exercises, followed closely by a Letting Go of Grievances and Blame class exercise, and positive parent-child and co-parent communication assignments. Additionally, parents who reported the class helped their relationships did not think they could have benefited as much from an on‐line program, as they considered their discussions and practice with each other significant to their positive outcomes.
PTC is a private practice, fee‐for-service descendent of the Los Angeles County Conciliation Court’s Parenting Without Conflict (PWC) program, an unfortunate victim of budget cuts that for several years was offered free to parents. While PTC has continued PWC’s encouragement of related co-parents attending classes together, and emphasis on practicing effective, verbal conflict resolution skills, focus has grown to include practicing e-mail communications, affect-regulation skills and positive parenting. The program is based on an empirically supported model of healthy co-parent functioning, including effective problem-solving and communication, consistent role functioning, constructive emotional responsiveness and involvement, and positive parenting and behavior control. The program is highly structured starting with a signed contract about class goals, expectations and rules, and parents are assigned where they sit in class (related co-parents are seated a constructive distance from each other). Parents are disposed to venting with each other and blaming, which does not solve problems, and is usually counter-productive. In PTC classes, parents are required to discuss their personal concerns through structured exercises and homework assignments. PTC has found that structure is essential for maintaining a safe emotional and physical environment in classes. Structured assignments and exercises are also important for maintaining parents’ engagement with each other and class exercises at constructive levels of emotional intensity; too much intensity stimulates regressive anger and defensiveness; however, parents disengage when there is too little intensity.
Nonetheless, as class leaders, structure, curriculum and focus of our PTC classes were rather consistent over the year (there were small variations of class focus responsive to different themes that were more prominent in different classes), it is quite reasonable to speculate that much of the differences in positive and negative class evaluations were a factor of pre-existing differences among parents. While they also rated the content of classes very favorably, evaluation comments by parents who strongly disagreed that the class was helpful emphasized that either their co-parent did not make a sincere effort to use the class or had mental health or personality disorders that the class could not or did not influence. We have become impressed that a critical strength of successful co-parents and parents who report benefit from the class is their ability when they are frustrated with their co-parent to calm themselves, take perspective before acting, and consider compassionate attributions about their co-parent and consider multiple and low threat options for handling current problems.
For some parents there were realistic reasons for staying vigilant and/or keeping a safe distance from a toxic co-parent, and limited contact and/or parallel parenting plans may remain the best interest custody plan for their children. However, some parents capable of healthier co-parenting appear to resist because of apprehension about losing perceived advantages in a “high-conflict” relationship, i.e., a parent who does not want to risk losing primary physical custody. There may also be significantly different dynamics involved in sharing children among couples who were never married or committed when their children were conceived, a question future parent survey may shed light on. Nonetheless, while more research including control group designs is definitely needed, available evidence indicates that court ordered classes remain one of the most cost/effective, evidence-based interventions for this population. For more information about Parents Together For Children, visit our website, www.coparentsolutions.com.
*Fackrell,T. A., et al., How Effective Are Court-Affiliated Divorcing Parents Education Programs? A Meta-Analytic Study Family Court Review, Vol. 49, January 2011 107–119